My own déjà vu
These are tough, tough days, just now. And, these days, I remember all too well my stormy undergraduate years at Berkeley during those brutal, transformative Sixties. Throughout that decade – was it half a century ago? – we took to the streets over and over again, to peacefully (at first) confront an oppressive government that was becoming increasingly, violently, out of control.
It began for me on May 15, 1960, when I joined a demonstration against the House Un-American Activities Committee – bent then upon finding communists among our faculty – after the police had washed students down the marble steps of San Francisco City Hall, with fire hoses.
And then the Civil Rights Movement gained the attention and participation of students who marched for equality – leading to the Freedom Rides in 1961, voter registration in 1962, and the march on Washington in 1963 at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech.
The Black Panthers responded with their own passion from nearby Oakland – encouraged and armed by their minister of education, who frequented the home that I shared with counterculture dissidents of one stripe or another. It turned out, decades later, he was also an undercover FBI informant and provocateur.
In 1965 – while the war in Vietnam was continuing to devour innocent young draftees – teach-ins, styled after the successful sit-ins of that time, evolved out of an increasingly assertive anti-war movement. Card tables were set up on campus, where students learned the latest news and signed up to take an active part. Then the administration attempted to remove the tables, resulting in the infamous Free Speech Movement.
Students demanded the right to free speech while the university invoked the outdated principle of in loco parentis, whereby the university claimed custodial authority over all students – no matter their age – in place of their parents. In time, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover arranged for a charismatic and photogenic actor named Ronald Reagan to step in and deal with us as governor – and the rest, as they say, is history. In 1968, five years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were murdered. Violence continued to ripple on toward the end of that dark decade, until it finally overflowed full-scale at People’s Park, in 1969.
A month before my graduation hundreds of us were herded into Sproul Plaza, which a low-flying helicopter then filled with tear gas, blanketing us. Many were seriously injured during the fighting that day, and an innocent bystander, James Rector – may his name never be forgotten – died of gunshot wounds at the hands of deputies of the Alameda County Sheriff.
I sketch all this out, here in one place, to remind myself that we have already endured horrific circumstances while working to create a better world, and – with the courage of our convictions – we can do this again. But how is this done? Not by trickling down, but by welling up: by responding, rather than reacting.
I think of the one-armed man who owned a small bookshop on Telegraph Avenue – a man who had been wounded in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, in equally perilous times long before our own. He once told me that to push against your opponent, you must press from your own ground. “Don’t complain,” he said, “proclaim.”
A healthy society is made up of healthy people, and likewise to be truly healthy we must live in a healthy society. They work together – and we must work towards that, together. When we recognize that something is wrong, it’s important to identify instead with what is right, and to speak up. Protest against what is bad by demonstrating what is good, for this is what a demonstration is all about. Do not focus upon how wronged we are, as victims; find the elements of your faith, believe in them, and be strong instead.
The elements of my own faith are named these days by such words as diversity, nature, and children. In diversity is found the strength and resilience of interwoven multitudes of minorities, braided together into one great and dynamic whole. The complex cycling, healing interactions of nature that surround us are also found within us, in the complexities of human nature and in their continual flow. And childhood is our common denominator; every one of us was once a child, and that child is still there within each one of us, needing to be cared for – and cared about.
We must enter these difficult, difficult times that lie ahead together – with an equal measure of equanimity and integrity. With equanimity we will be neither so saddened that we grow discouraged, nor so excited that we grow careless. And with integrity the great diversity of every minority will be braided into one rich wholeness, in which every single one of us – not just the entitled few – will be living life well.